In a world of children’s films increasingly characterized by technological accomplishment and sophisticated rendering in lieu of good old-fashioned storytelling, it was a breath of fresh air to enjoy the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Tapping the considerable voice talents of George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Bill Murray (Badger), Michael Gambon (Franklin Bean), Owen Wilson (Coach Skip), Willem Dafoe (Rat) and Jason Schwartzman (Ash), director Wes Anderson has managed to take the quirky children’s story of the same name (by the talented Roald Dahl) and craft an engaging movie that is simultaneously edgy and delightful.
Like Where the Wild Things Are, the story of Fantastic Mr. Fox is deceptively lightweight: Mr. Fox, upon learning his wife is pregnant, swears off mischief and thievery, but in a sort of vulpes version of a mid-life crisis, later can’t resist the urge to pull off one more great caper. His nemesis? The three farmers across the valley, Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
Boggis (voiced by Robin Hurlstone) runs a chicken farm, Bunce (Hug Guinness) has a pig farm and Bean (Gambon) has a turkey farm and apple orchard, the latter of which he uses to produce hundreds of gallons of alcoholic cider. They are perfect targets for the sly and savvy Mr. Fox with his incessant plans. What he doesn’t plan on is their aggressive response to the thefts…
Adding to the mix, Mr. Fox’s brother is suffering from double pnemonia and nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to stay with them, pushing out their son Ash (Schwartzman), who acutely feels his inability to measure up to the talents and mystique of his cousin.
I wasn’t entirely sure I liked Fantastic Mr. Fox when I first walked out of the theater, but it grew on me as I thought more about the story and how Anderson has turned a children’s book into a film about finding yourself and your true purpose in life. A bit edgy and not without its moments of adult language and dialog, it’s an interesting addition to the Christmas movie mix and worth seeing, though perhaps not for the youngest in your family.
The book itself starts thusly: “Down in the valley there were three farms. The owners of these farms had done well. They were rich men. They were also nasty men. All three of themwere about as nasty and mean as any men you could meet. Their names were Farmer Boggis, Farmer Bunce and Farmer Bean.”
In fact, the children in Mr. Fox’s neighborhood had created a rhyme: “Boggis and Bunce and Bean, one fat, one short, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean.” They are the perfect foil for the sly Mr. Fox.
Kristofferson (left, a silver fox) and Ash pull off their own caper in Fantastic Mr. Fox
Characteristic of Dahl’s work (he also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, among others), there’s a dark shadow that flits throughout the story, offering up surprisingly adult moments, characters that cuss when they get frustrated, a strained relationship between the self-absorbed Mr. Fox and his son Ash, and even foxes killing chickens (just barely off-camera). I enjoyed it, but was surprised more than once at the language and tone, though it might well pass most children without them realizing what had transpired.
One of my favorite characters, hands down, was Rat (voiced by Willem Dafoe). The Bean cider storeroom guard, I was delighted at the cheesy spaghetti western theme music that accompanied his introduction in the story. Very much the feel of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and Dafoe has just the right edge to his voice here to pull it off, even when he’s snapping his fingers and acting for all purposes like a member of the Jets gang from West Side Story.
In a dialog that’s held in so many families as the parents begin to face their mortality, at one point Mr. and Mrs. Fox talk about his urge to pull off a caper as a way to reinvigorate his life, even if it brings great danger to the entire family in the form of retaliation by the mean farmers:
Mrs. Fox: “This story is too predictable.”
Mr. Fox: “What happens in the end?”
Mrs. Fox: “We all die unless you change your ways.”
Ultimately the film ends with Mr. Fox lifting his glass at a banquet with all of his animal friends: “let’s drink a toast to… our survival.” And indeed, perhaps that’s all we can ask in the face of a hostile world.
For a children’s film to have this existential subtext is remarkable, and if you’re looking for something with a terrific visual style, witty visuals and dialog, and a story that operates at a number of levels, I’ll recommend you check out Fantastic Mr. Fox. If you’re going to bring children along, an investment in reading the book to them first might greatly help younger ones understand what’s going on too.